Last week, on a dim, freezing morning with snow in a billow out the window, I read Mary’s Magnificat.
I’ve spoken about Mary lately in the talk I give at the conferences – the way she entered into becoming chosen because of the way she perceived and entered into the story of God. The Magnificat is her own lyrical commentary on that story and I’ve studied it before; when I wrote on Mary for my book, I became aware that her song is woven of Psalm, prophecy, and history. Every line in it alludes to another portion of Scripture, a story already told, a Psalm already sung. In order to have made such a song, Mary must have spent her young lifetime immersed in the words and story of Yahweh. She must have listened long and pondered deeply, for when she opened her mouth in praise she consciously joined herself to an ongoing chorus that had its beginning centuries before. The Magnificat is remarkable for its display of Mary’s spiritual knowledge and insight.
But as I read her mighty song on my cold morning, I was startled to realize that it is also remarkable for its individuality. It is a surprisingly personal song, framed in personal pronouns. Mary is singing the story of the world’s salvation, but she doesn’t see herself as subsumed in the plot. She still says “me.” She doesn’t sing merely of the general blessedness of God’s people, she sings of the honor that God’s choice brings her personally. All generations will call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me. Over and above God’s plan to redeem, she knows she has been personally honored, hand-chosen and in addition to being saved from her sins, she will be famous for her blessedness throughout the ages.
My heart thumped an extra beat as I finished. Something in me that fears presumption found Mary’s proclamations bold. Is personal triumph allowed to bondservants? Isn’t that a bit impertinent?
I went about my day, my questions unresolved. Soon, in fact, I forgot them. I wrestled my car through snow and slush on countless day-before-conference errands and pulled into the last parking lot of the day exhausted, just as my phone rang. The call was one answering my inquiry into a possibility for my future that had greatly excited me the week before. There were some obstacles to be ironed out before the way was clear, but I had every hope and indication that the person on the other end of that phone could help. Until we actually spoke.
My ear was filled for the next thirty minutes with a calm voice that informed me in terms of technical accuracy and tones of professional cordiality that there was absolutely no possibility for me. I could try, I was informed, but the ceaseless, steady waterfall of information poured into my ear seemed designed to convince me that the effort would be wasted and I would be a fool to begin.
I held my own until I hung up the phone. Then I sat in the cold, colorless silence of my car and felt myself shrinking, reduced to the size of the viewpoint of the person with whom I had just talked. I was chilled. And strangely, almost afraid, reminded as I have been many times in the past years, that in a world that measures worth in money, power, and signed papers, I have very little pull. The bleakness of it seemed to make me smaller in my seat as my hope, temporarily, failed.
But not two minutes had passed before Mary and her bold song reached into my memory from the morning. For He has regard for the humble state of his bondslave… The Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is his name!… All generations will call me blessed… Sitting there, I realized, in a keen way that I never have before, that I am the humble and the lowly. I am the hungry and powerless. I’m not rich or mighty, I do not sit on a throne and in the world’s eyes, I have nothing.
But I am also the blessed. For I, like Mary, am the bondslave of the living God. Imperfect, yes. Frail, oh yes. But wholly given to the call and identity of one whose story is in God’s keeping and part of his cosmic telling of redemption. I forgot it for that first moment after the call. I listened to a voice whose narration told away my confidence and hope. But the hope came back with the memory that as God’s servant I live, not in my own power, not by my own wits and credentials, but by the love, and grace, and very personal favor of God. And the Mighty One can do great things for me as I live out his story.
As I shivered in my car seat with a snow day sunset glooming on the horizon, I realized that those who choose the identity and work of a bondservant to God can claim and request the acts of God in a very personal way. God’s chosen ones are not faceless nonentities who work as holy robots to fulfill his plans. They are living, breathing, deeply emotional human souls in needy bodies who offer the whole of their selfhood to God. Mary knew this, so she also knew that when God tells the big story of salvation forward, the smaller tale of individual human hearts goes forward too. We are known. Our needs are known. And somehow, as God rights the broken story of the world, he makes our own tiny story a blessed one too.
When the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, redemption began with the baby Jesus, yes. Big story. But part of that meant that Mary was honored for all time. Smaller story, but for her, the triumph of a lifetime. Jesus’ coming was the world’s salvation. And God’s choice of Mary to be the vessel was the honor of a young girl’s diligent engagement with the story of God. God so loved the world, but Mary loved God in the small way she knew, and he honored that love even as he brought redemption to the earth. To triumph in the mighty acts of God, to find a personal favor tucked within the great gifts he offers the world is what it means to be a bondservant to a God whose knit us together in our mother’s wombs.
So I will not fear. I am the servant of the Lord and the Mighty One will do great things for me. I don’t yet know what that means. I don’t know if the opporunity I was hoping for will open up or not. But God’s story is my story and mine is God’s, and he tells the both of them well. My one humble, hoping little human heart will not be lost in the crush of a greater tale. For he has regard for the humble. And one day, with Mary, I will be able to tell just how he lifted the world up, and me along with it. Favor indeed.